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NATIVITY SCENE SITS IN AMHERST LIMBO ISSUE OF CHURCH AND STATE RAISED; ITS RETURN DEPENDS ON LOCATION

A Nativity scene that once occupied a place of prominence along Williamsville's Main Street has become trapped in a kind of dreary twilight zone behind an Amherst highway building.

It appeared for a day or two last month in front of the Williamsville Public Library. But then it was whisked away.

It reappearance this year depends on whether the Williamsville Rotary Club, which owns it, can find a suitable place for it in the village's business district.

"We are trying to find a private piece of property," Rotary President Phillip Santa Maria said Tuesday. "That's pretty much where we left it."

With Christmas just two weeks away, the Nativity scene, or creche, has ended up in storage because of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions and several complaints the town has received in recent years.

In both 1984 and 1989, the court ruled that a religious display cannot be set up on public property if it appears that its presence suggests government support of a religion.

"You can't just have a religious symbol sitting alone on public property because it is an endorsement of religion," explained Town Attorney James M. Nesper.

"If a more general display were put up so that the Nativity scene was not the central theme, probably it would be OK," he added.

Civil liberties attorney David G. Jay puts it in slightly more descriptive terms.

"The Supreme Court pretty much said that if you offend everybody, it's OK," he said.

"If you combine Christmas trees with a manger and reindeer, a menorah, Santa Claus and penguins -- make it as irreligious as you can -- it's OK."

Although the Amherst Town Board recently went on record, at least indirectly, in favor of religious displays on public property, it has been tiptoeing around the issue for the last five years. The creche now behind the highway garage originally was owned by the town and placed in front of the Town Hall each Christmas.

Councilman Lawrence Southwick recalls that, after the 1984 court decision, it was sold to the Williamsville Rotary Club for "market value of $25." The Rotary Club was given permission to place it on the lawn of the library, next to the Town Hall, but the town allowed the club to store the creche at the Highway Department, where it always has been kept.

The thinking at that time, according to F. Robert Danni, assistant town building inspector and a Rotarian, was that a sign identifying the Nativity scene as property of the Rotary Club legalized its placement on public land.

Highway Superintendent Patrick Lucey said he got involved in delivering the creche to the library for the Rotary Club three years ago at Danni's request.

"I should not have delivered it, but I didn't even think about it because we had done it for so many years," he said. "We just threw it on a pickup truck and dropped it off."

Each year since then, Danni said, he has called Lucey, on behalf of the Rotary Club, and asked that the creche be hauled to the library and then taken away after Christmas.

This year, Lucey said, he had the creche delivered to the library as usual. But a day or two later, Deputy Town Attorney John P. Lane called him. "He asked me to take it away," Lucey said.

Lane said the creche was set up "by mistake" before he had an opportunity to discuss the situation with the Town Board.

The board earlier had voted down Supervisor Daniel J. Ward's proposal to ban religious displays or scenes of any kind from town buildings and grounds -- to comply with the Supreme Court rulings. A few days later, the Town Board informally formulated a new policy, designating the Harlem Road Community Center as the official site for outdoor religious displays.

Ward said he favored the ban because of the diverse religions represented by town residents.

Meanwhile, Southwick said the board's "official policy" as determined during an informal meeting a couple of weeks ago is to permit religious displays to be set up at the Harlem Road site because "there is plenty of room there and it is a good location."

However, Lane indicated that the Harlem Road property poses even more questions than the library site because it is relatively isolated and a display there would be conspicuous.

"It is not in a commercial strip where there are other decorations and lights. A display there would not be part of a total scene," he said. "As things stand right now, it looks as though there will not be any displays on public property this year -- unless the Town Board receives a new request."

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